powered by AFI
In 1958 Elvis Presley became perhaps the most famous peacetime draftee in the history of the U.S. Military. There was much press at the time speculating that his stint could potentially end his career as a fickle public in the States focused on a new fad or trend. Elvis' manager, Col. Tom Parker, shifted into high gear during the two years that Elvis was stationed in Germany, making sure that his boy never left the headlines while planning for a distinct image shift upon his discharge. Always possessed with the subtlety of a flying mallet, Col. Parker ensured that the New Elvis image in motion pictures would have none of the unpredictably of "Deke Rivers" in Loving You (1957), the menace of "Vince Everett" in Jailhouse Rock (1957), or the cynicism of "Danny Fisher" in King Creole (1958). No, his "Tulsa McLean" in G.I. Blues (1960) is something else altogether; there can be no doubt of this by the time the character is singing a novelty song in a children's puppet show or crooning a lullaby while babysitting an infant.
In the film Tulsa MacLean (Presley) is a tank gunner for the Spearhead Division stationed in West Germany. With his buddies Rick (James Douglas) and Cookie (Robert Ivers), Tulsa has formed a band called The Three Blazes; they hope to open a nightclub back home after their stint in the service. The group performs at a restaurant owned by Papa Mueller (Fred Essler) in an effort to pay back money owed to their gruff Sgt. McGraw (Arch Johnson). Later, Tulsa finds that a division-wide bet hinges on his skills as a Romeo after another soldier drops out of the wager; Tulsa is to spend the night with Lili (Juliet Prowse), a dancer at a club in Frankfurt. Unfortunately, Lili has a reputation as an Ice Queen. At the Club Europa, Tulsa impresses Lili with his singing, but when he arrives with her at her apartment, he finds his friend Cookie there with Lili's roommate Tina (Leticia Roman). Tulsa later talks Sgt. McGraw into giving he and his buddies a 3-Day Pass from the base; this gives Tulsa more time to romance Lili on a ferry, a ski lift, and other scenic opportunities.
Elvis' movie contract was held by producer Hal Wallis, and he and Col. Parker were on the same page in regards to taking advantage of the image of the King of Rock 'n' Roll in uniform. In his book Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars Bernard F. Dick writes, however, that "The Colonel had to be reminded that legally Wallis had the right to produce Elvis' first film after his discharge." A newly-minted four-year contract stipulated four pictures for Wallis but allowed for two outside pictures in the first and fourth years, and one each for the second and third years of the deal.
Elvis was discharged from active duty in March of 1960, but by that time his first post-service feature had been long planned and shooting had already begun. In August of 1959 producer Wallis had accompanied a 2nd Unit to West Germany to film background plates and incidental footage of the U.S. Third Armored Division, where Elvis was stationed. Although tank maneuvers were filmed, both the Army and Paramount were quick to point out that the studio received no special treatment and that Elvis himself was off limits to the camera while he was still on active duty. As Peter Guralnick writes in Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, "Elvis was clear on his instructions he was not to participate in filming in any way but he did go to dinner with Wallis on several occasions and spoke excitedly about the upcoming production. He had put in a lot of time just preparing for this role, he declared, about seventeen months so far, and he thought he would have it just about right by the time he got out in March."
Wallis wanted to cast a German actress for the romantic lead, and tested Ursula Andress for the part. Ultimately, however, he cast professional dancer Juliet Prowse, who had just made her film debut in the Cole Porter adaptation Can-Can (1960). Born in India to South African parents, Prowse was engaged to Can-Can co-star Frank Sinatra during filming of G.I. Blues (although they never married).
Elvis' first order of business upon discharge was an official televised greeting from Sinatra, at the end of his TV Special called "Frank Sinatra's Welcome Home Party for Elvis Presley." Elvis sang a few solo songs and performed a duet with Frank to close the show. Col. Parker secured a $125,000 fee for his client a record for a guest TV appearance. When aired in May, the show received an incredible 67.7 audience share. Col. Parker did not overlook any detail and the show contained a healthy plug for Elvis' return to movies with G.I. Blues .
Elvis was unhappy with the song selection in G.I. Blues , as well he might be, considering that the eventual soundtrack includes a lullaby and a puppet serenade ("Wooden Heart"). The great songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had written several memorable rockers for Jailhouse Rock and penned two new songs, "Tulsa's Blues" and "Dog Face" for the new film. Col. Parker rejected the songs prior to production for "business reasons." (Parker insisted that his client receive a cut of all songwriter royalties, and the much-in-demand Leiber and Stoller were no doubt unwilling to give up any portion thereof). The inferior nature of the final song selection was all the more apparent following a scene early in the film when "Blue Suede Shoes" is played on a jukebox. (The version heard in the film is a new 1960 re-recording of the Carl Perkins classic, not Elvis' original cover from 1956).
The anemic soundtrack of G.I. Blues was part of Col. Parker's plan to soften Elvis' rebel image and broaden his boy's core fan base. As Guralnick writes, "the character that Elvis played was at odds not just with the characters that he had played in all his pre-army films but with the very image of rebellion that had always defined him. Far from being an outcast, this Elvis Presley was safe, 'social,' and cheerfully domesticated, a conventionally bland Hollywood stick figure whose principal conflict comes in the ethics of 'dating' a nightclub dancer in order to win a bet." Guralnick goes on to say that this wholesome fare "...did not even begin to suggest the complexity of either the real Elvis or the real world that Elvis had come to know, and his feelings of foolishness and humiliation were not helped by the guys smirking over some of the 'cute' bits he was given to do..."
G.I. Blues was previewed at a number of military bases around the country before it opened officially on November 23, 1960. In the New York Times Bosley Crowther took immediate note of the image-remaking at work and stated that "whatever else the Army has done for Elvis Presley, it has taken that indecent swivel out of his hips and turned him into a good, clean, trustworthy, upstanding American young man...Gone is that rock 'n' roll wriggle, that ludicrously lecherous leer, that precocious country-bumpkin swagger, that unruly mop of oily hair." Crowther practically endorses this new, more conservative Elvis, saying "...his hairbrush haircut is trim and tidy, his G.I. uniform is crisp and neat and his attitude is cheerful. Elvis is now a fellow you can almost stand." But the critic acknowledges that this new Elvis may not be for the better; "It's a question of how those squealing youngsters, Elvis' erstwhile fans, are going to take to a rock 'n' roll singer with honey in his veins instead of blood....It is nice to see that Elvis has become such a fine young man. But he doesn't have to overdo it. There are limits to everything." The reviewer for Variety noted the poor soundtrack, saying "responsibility for penning the 10 tunes is given to no one on Paramount's credit sheet. Considering the quality of these compositions, such anonymity is understandable."
G.I. Blues has its share of sloppiness; the pacing is poor, and the seemingly endless 2nd Unit footage does not mesh with the remainder shot on Hollywood soundstages. Elvis' handlers and producer Wallis intended to give his fans the treat of seeing Elvis on the big screen as a soldier in Germany, and yet the final product provides an unfortunate disconnect. For example, we see Elvis and Prowse walking awkwardly in front of a rear-projected German street scene, then a cut to a long shot of doubles for the two actors entering a building. Regardless, G.I. Blues was a box-office success, ensuring that future Elvis movies would stick to a similar formula. Unfortunately, Elvis Presley was never allowed to return to the musical drama genre of his early pre-service films.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: Norman Taurog
Screenplay: Edmund Beloin, Henry Garson
Cinematography: Loyal Griggs
Art Direction: Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler
Music: Joseph J. Lilley
Costume Design: Edith Head
Cast: Elvis Presley (Tulsa McLean), Juliet Prowse (Lili), Robert Ivers (Cookie), James Douglas (Rick), Leticia Roman (Tina), Sigrid Maier (Marla), Arch Johnson (Sgt. McGraw), Mickey Knox (Jeeter), John Hudson (Capt. Hobart), Ken Becker (Mac), Jeremy Slate (Turk), Beach Dickerson (Warren), Trent Dolan (Mickey), Carl Crow (Walt), Fred Essler (Papa Mueller), Ron Starr (Harvey), Erika Peters (Trudy), Ludwig Stossel (Owner, puppet show)
by John M. Miller